Castro 3

A review of my favourite podcast player

Castro is my favourite podcast player. I love its design but more, I love how it lets me handle my listening queue. Most new episodes go directly to my queue; job done. However for podcasts which I’ll never have the time nor the will to listen to every episode of, new episodes go to my inbox where I can review the description and decide to put it in my queue for listening or ignore it and archive it.

This triaging system is what made Castro 2 unique. Castro 3 builds on that foundation by improving the listening experience.

Before we get started, we’ll get this out of the way: Castro 3 is free for everyone with an optional premium features package. Castro 2 owners even receive many of these Castro Plus features for free. (More pricing and details near the bottom.)

I have written this review based on my usage of Castro 3 with Castro Plus, which I have paid for myself. I am not affiliated with Supertop, the company which produces Castro.

Audio Playback Engine

The primary job of a podcast player is just that: playing podcasts. Previously Castro left the job of playing audio to iOS’s own systems, but Castro 3 now has its own custom playback engine which is much faster. Once you press the play button you’ll notice that playback begins instantly and scrubbing through audio is also noticeably faster.

Fortunately by writing their own playback engine Supertop have been able to implement several other playback features like intro skipping, silence trimming, improved voice enhance and a feature I can’t recall seeing elsewhere: mix to mono. Remixing the audio to be mono, rather than stereo can be useful if you find audio panning between your left and right ears difficult to listen to or uncomfortable making.

In the time I’ve spent using new audio systems I can say that the updated Enhanced Voices processing seems to work more uniformly and without distortion. It ensures I can hear my podcast over the drone of the train on my daily commute without turning the volume up too high.

Other playback features like trimmed silences and increased playback speed are not my cup of tea, I must say. I think the speed at which we speak and the space between words carries meaning I don’t want to lose. However, I know many do prefer to listen this way, so what I can say is that in the podcasts where I tried it, it sounded fine and I didn’t notice any unnatural clipping of speech.

The Player

The aural experience isn’t the only part of listening, though. You need some way to control what’s happening. You need a player screen.

The player control screens have always been the best part of the Castro interface. In version 1 it was a panel that slid in as the rest of the interface was pushed back like a cat flap. Then in Castro 2 the queue and inbox interface could be slid back to reveal what felt like a secret control panel, filled with buttons and sliders. Unfortunately, though, Supertop were not able to support features like chapters and artwork that varied by episode or chapter, features which later became much more popular in the podcast community.

I’m happy to report that Castro 3 changes this. The player screen now places the podcast artwork in the spotlight and will display specific artwork for a chapter or episode if the podcast offers it. It goes without saying then that Castro 3 has full support for podcast chapters, too.

Settings and options that may be less frequently used (like sleep timer and playback speed) are now accessible by swiping left from the main playing screen. There are other features available by interacting with the player UI, too. Pull to the right to access the show notes or swipe and pull to the left to access per-podcast settings. (See the “Little Things” section for even more.)

The player also features an updated play bar. Gone is the whimsy of the waveform scrubber (much maligned for being a simulated waveform and for being difficult to understand how to use). The new scrubber is big and chunky, like the skip and pause/play buttons, and almost feels physical, like a slider on an audio board. Understanding that it can be hard to tap precisely on the play head adjust the playback position, the Castro 3 scrubber lets you tap and hold anywhere to re-position playback.

Little Things

Since Castro 1 Supertop have excelled at creating playful and attractive experience for the user. They make use of custom animations and haptic feedback which give the app personality and presence. The two finger swipe gesture to change between light and dark themes still makes my heart flutter. Then, things like custom sounds make the app feel distinguished: “a most especial notification has arrived to your phone!”

There are other little features and touches that help Castro stand out:

watchOS App

Castro 3 also brings a watchOS app (for no additional charge). It complements the iPhone app visually and gives you quick access to playback controls like play/pause and skip back/forward. You’re also only one tap away from your queue if you’d like to change what you’re listening to.

Being able to change the playback volume would be exceptionally convenient here. Unfortunately watchOS just doesn’t provide a way for apps to do that.

Castro Plus

Simply put, Castro 3 is free with an optional premium subscription called Castro Plus which costs $9/year or $3/quarter (USD), or the equivalent in your local currency. Both include a 7-day free trial.

If you are upgrading from Castro 2, it’s important to note that you will lose no features in the upgrade because you paid for version 2. However if you choose to subscribe to Castro Plus, you’ll benefit from chapter support and silence trimming. In addition, you get the ability to set those per-podcast along with other per-podcast settings like mix to mono, episode limits and skip intros.

If you are a new user of Castro, as stated, Castro is free to download, which is a steal considering you get the excellent triage system. If you choose to upgrade to Castro Plus you get lots more features, though: chapter support, enhanced audio, and silence trimming. Also included are the ability to set those preferences per-podcast as well as others like: skip intros, mix to mono and episode limits. All that plus one other small but helpful feature: night mode.

Supertop aren’t finished with Castro Plus features, either. Later 3.x updates will bring more if you’re not quite sold yet.

What’s Not To Like?

Not a lot, if you ask me. That said, though, “nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.”

iPad Pro makes for a great podcast speaker so I’d love for Castro to offer an iPad version. The trouble is it would take immense amounts of work to make an interface so carefully designed and specialised for iPhone to work on the bigger screen. I also don’t know that there’s enough of a user base for it. Still, I’d be delighted to have it.

In other podcast players, skip forward and back buttons can become “weighted” – where, for example, if you tap skip forward three times in a row, the app skips forward faster the second and third times. Castro doesn’t offer this feature, but I’d appreciate having it. It’s particularly useful when you’re using the controls on the iOS cover sheet (lock screen) rather than the in-app scrubber.

Lastly, some may not like the lack of a dedicated podcast directory (Castro uses the iTunes directory). Apps offering their own directories tend to curate selections allowing you to find shows by network or radio station and provide a more visual experience. Castro’s discovery tab is still bare-bones. Perhaps most people don’t go browsing and instead rely on recommendations from friends or other podcasts. Still, I’d like to see this section given a little more attention.

And Finally

All that said, my complaints are minor. An immense amount of work went into producing this version and it shows. The app radiates with care and attention to detail. For me, with the improvements in chapter support and enhanced vocal processing, Castro 3 is the best podcast app.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, but more importantly I hope that you’ll give Castro a try. It may be your best podcast app, too.

22 May 2018